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Jewish Journal

Campus Wake-up Call

by Vivian Alberts

May 4, 2010 | 5:02 pm

Consider it a wake-up call: One family, two different events a little more than a year apart, one common antagonist — Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).  In February 2009, our eldest daughter, Talia, felt compelled to write an article in her college newspaper at Northwestern University decrying a student group’s invitation to Norman Finkelstein, an inflammatory anti-Israel speaker who was denied tenure at DePaul University.

In his review of Finkelstein’s book, “The Holocaust Industry,” Brown University professor Omer Bartov wrote: “The gist of [Finkelstein’s] argument is simple. Had the Jews and Zionists not had the Holocaust already, they would have had to invent it.”

On his own Web site, Finkelstein posts a Jan. 8, 2008, Lebanon Daily Star article in which, on a visit to Lebanon, he is quoted as stating that the terrorist group Hezbollah “represents the hope ... they are defending themselves against foreign marauders, vandals and murderers and I consider it to be genuinely ... an honor to be in their presence.”

Who invited such a speaker? Students for Justice in Palestine, that’s who.

Fast forward to April 2010, when our younger daughter, Ariela, a freshman at UC Berkeley, was also shaken into action by an anti-Israel divestment bill on campus that was supposedly against “war crimes” yet singled out Israel for rebuke.  In an e-mail depicting the contentious all-night hearing she attended, Ariela described some of the highly offensive anti-Semitic remarks: “The writers of the bill say that, in itself, the bill is not anti-Semitic. Whether or not you believe that, I argue that whatever it is, something about the bill brings out anti-Semitic sentiment that I have never felt before. An Israeli man, probably in
his 40s, wearing a kippah, was tapped on his shoulder by the woman behind him (a supporter of the bill and local Berkeley resident), and told by her, ‘You know what’s ironic? You really look like a Nazi.
There is something unpleasant about your face and features that really resembles a Nazi.’ ”

Who brought this bill? Students for Justice in Palestine, that’s who.

It takes only a brief Internet search to discover the breadth of the divestment campaign across university campuses. Media watchdog CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, notes that “Students for Justice in Palestine was the first to launch an organized divestment campaign. Since then, over 50 campuses have followed suit.”
SJP chapters across the country also promote Israeli Apartheid Week. The Berkeley SJP site announces that “Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) is an annual international series of events held in cities and
campuses across the globe. The aim of IAW is to educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement.” 

Our daughters grew up in a strong multigenerational Zionist family, with many points of view expressed at our dining room table.  Not unlike many Jewish homes, our home regularly includes varied political discussions and passionate views on many topics, including regarding what we believe is best for Israel and the United States.  I voted for President Obama, my husband did not. Talia and Ariela are accustomed to vigorous debate and political disagreement, but they are also accustomed to respectful debate that does not debase or delegitimize other human beings. Despite our political differences, we all agree that coexistence and respect for others must ultimately prevail in Israel, and we all pray for peace.

What is clear about SJP is that it is not remotely interested in the same basic underlying ideals. Rather, its strategic campaigns aim to dehumanize Israelis and Jews and deny their history. The SJP brazenly hosts Holocaust defamers such as Finkelstein, organize divisive divestment campaigns, accuse Israel of apartheid and attract supporters who spew anti-Semitic and vitriolic statements at Jewish students and speakers.  They do not seek to bring provocative yet fair-minded speakers who acknowledge that this is a complex and historic conflict and that serious grievances exist on both sides.

Many active Jewish students, our daughters included, seek to build bridges; they participate in “Seeds of Peace” events, organize and attend coexistence dinners, and often acknowledge that, while they love and support Israel, they understand that Israel has made mistakes as well. Quite to the contrary, the SJP repeatedly singles out Israel as the primary country allegedly guilty of “war crimes,” ignoring any faults in the often oppressive regimes they support and never recognizing that there are countless grieving families in Israel who have lost loved ones in war and terror.

Perhaps most disturbing, as evidenced recently on the campuses of both UC Davis and UC Berkeley, it is not unusual for SJP supporters to shout offensive statements calling American Jews and Israelis “Nazis,” thereby degrading and denying the horrific and indescribably painful experiences of our people. Sadly, this often incites ugly behavior and name-calling on both sides.

As Jews, we rightfully take pride in the fact that we are leaders in civil rights movements in the United States and around the world. Many Jews, dear friends included, are on the front lines defending Palestinian rights. That is fine and admirable. But in standing up righteously for others, we must not ignore that our humanity is being challenged and that Israel’s right to exist is being systematically attacked. Of course, not every Muslim student group is like the SJP, but SJP chapters are well-funded and are usurping the lion’s share of the limelight — a spotlight they do not deserve.

As it turns out, it is no coincidence that our daughters were prompted to action by the unjust and antagonistic efforts of one well-organized group not seeking “justice” at all, but rather the relentless delegitimization of our people and our history. The SJP quite intentionally and callously uses iconic language and historic events such as war crimes, apartheid and the Holocaust and methodically misapplies them to Israel. It is time we all wake up, raise awareness of this corrosive campaign and get better-organized. I am not by nature an alarmist, but when Israel’s very right to exist is being continuously challenged, we must be ready to credibly combat one-sided intimidation tactics disguised as debate.

Vivian Alberts is past president of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and an attorney currently working as an executive in the field of charitable and community affairs.

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